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Friday, February 24, 2012

Diego Rivera in New York

By Tom Phillips

History doesn't repeat itself, as the man said, but it does rhyme.  And so Diego Rivera's Depression-era murals of oppression and revolt, first shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1931, pack a double impact in their return to MOMA now, amid the Great Recession and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The mural above is called The Uprising, and depicts a clash between troops and protesters during the Mexican Revolution in the 1920s.   But it made me think of – even feel again – the thud of a student’s body against concrete in Zuccotti Park last December, when police tackled him for jumping a barricade.  Here the barricade is a sword, thrust out at the level of the man’s genitals.  A wife protests, a baby screams. In this crowded scene is all the tension and menace inherent in a popular uprising – people against power, with weapons drawn and the outcome unknown.    

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Confessions of a Philosemite

-- By Tom Phillips

Recently I learned a new word, which made me happy for about fifteen minutes.  The word is Philosemite, meaning someone who admires and appreciates the Jewish people, their religion and culture.  That’s me, I thought.  I have spent most my life among Jews, owe them inestimable debts and would feel lost without their presence.  But I had never come across a term to describe my relation to them. “Philosemite” had a good sound to it, its mixed Greek and Hebrew roots expressing the fascination of an outsider, and the contrast with “anti-Semite” seeming to provide a badge of innocence in a suspicious age. 

However, after a brief Google search I was stunned to find a quote from a neighbor, an English professor whose daughter once played with mine in the West Side Soccer League.  “We must stamp out Philosemitism, wherever it rears its ugly head,” roared Melvin Bukiet in the Jewish newspaper Forward.   Further research revealed that the word has an ugly origin, coined by anti-Semites in 19th-century Germany as a term of derision for those who sympathized with Jews.  And it’s no badge of innocence; many people regard Philosemitism as a cover for anti-Semites, a socially acceptable way for them to express their sick fascination with Jews.    

A joke: Which is preferable – the anti-Semite or the Philosemite? 
             The anti-Semite.  At least he isn’t lying.   

Smacked down from my initial attraction to the word, I eventually decided to accept it anyway and apply it to myself.   I did so because the alternative would be to keep doing what I have learned to do, which is keep my mouth shut and try to pose as someone who has no strong feelings or mixed feelings about Jews or Judaism.  That’s a lie, and I think a common one.  In the long shadow of the Holocaust, complex or ambivalent feelings about Jews or Judaism have become dangerous to acknowledge.  And the chilling effect has extended into the political arena, curbing free discussion around crucial subjects like Zionism, Israel and U.S. foreign policy, areas where free speech is compromised at great risk to all. 

No joke:  Which are more dangerous, feelings that are communicated, or those that are denied?   Dr. Freud had the answer to that.   So the goal of this essay will be to communicate the mind of a Philosemite who isn’t lying.